Rhetoric softens, but disagreements persist over northern spotted owl

The ongoing saga of the northern spotted owl reached another milestone last week when the Fish and Wildlife Service released the final revised recovery plan for the threatened species. But if initial reaction to the plan is any indication, the owl wars that have raged in Pacific Northwest forests for more than 25 years are far from over.

Several conservation groups say the plan is a step in the right direction for the spotted owl, which despite being listed under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 has declined by about 3 percent a year.

The groups applauded the plan for recognizing that conservation of the owl depends not just on public lands, but private old-growth forests as well. Nevertheless, environmentalists remain concerned the plan places too much emphasis on logging to improve forest health and opens the door to cutting trees in late-succession reserves.

"It's still not a holistic owl recovery plan," said Steve Pedery, conservation director of Oregon Wild. "It avoids the question of 'What do we need to do to recover the owl?' and instead tries to answer the question, 'How can we log some old trees and do most of what the owls need?'"

Meanwhile, a timber industry representative said it is "tragic" the plan calls for additional habitat to be protected, while "doing virtually nothing" to address the threat posed by barred owls, which have moved into the region and are competing with the spotted owls.

"This is going to be another nail in the coffin of rural communities," Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, said of the recovery plan.

Such rhetoric is expected to grow only hotter this fall when FWS releases a map designating the owl's proposed critical habitat.

"The critical habitat designation is equally or probably more important [than the recovery plan] because it has the force of law behind it," said Shawn Cantrell, executive director of Seattle Audubon Society, the organization that originally sued to win ESA protection for spotted owls.


Additional regulations are imposed on federal lands designated as critical habitat. Primarily, federal agencies must consult with FWS on any projects that may affect habitat. Projects on private land must undergo FWS review only if a federal permit is required to do the work.

"If you are in it, you may like it or not," said Laurie Wayburn, president of Pacific Forest Trust, an organization promoting sustainable use and conservation of forests. "That will be a hotly contested element."

The public will have opportunity to comment on the proposed habitat designation, and FWS is required to finalize its critical habitat map by November 2012.

Evolving debate

The debate over spotted owls and forest management has changed in some ways since it exploded into the national spotlight during the 1980s.

At the height of the owl wars, locals displayed "Kill a Spotted Owl -- Save a Logger" bumper stickers. Environmentalists visiting Northwest timber towns took measures to avoid easy identification for fear of having their vehicles vandalized, Cantrell said.

"The fact that a long time has passed since the owl first gained prominence has allowed the more heated rhetoric and extreme statements to hopefully go away," Cantrell said.

But while today's debate may be more restrained, many of the arguments sound familiar.

"This plan will cost jobs and deliver another blow to the economies of rural communities throughout the Pacific Northwest, while doing little to actually help increase northern spotted owl populations," Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement issued less than two hours after the new recovery plan was released.

"The same rhetoric could have been taken from a press release in 1992," Cantrell said.

Cantrell said that many in the timber industry have acknowledged that the owl is not the primary driver behind the decrease in logging-related jobs. And some have found ways to make timber economics and owl conservation work together.

For example, in its 9,400 acres of experimental forests in California and Oregon, the Pacific Forest Trust has been able to restore owl habitat while still logging for profit. "You can manage economically in a robust fashion, collaboratively with the service and in a way that's beneficial for the owls," said Wayburn, the trust's president.

The debate has also shifted away from timber harvests to the role of the barred owl in spotted owl recovery. FWS now states that barred owls occupying traditional spotted owl habitat is the most pressing, immediate threat to the spotted owl.

Cantrell characterized the barred owl as the timber industry's "new whipping boy." Logging advocates suggest that little can be done about the barred owl and it won't be possible to save the spotted owl. Hence, the forests should be opened to more logging, he said.

While attention on the spotted owl may increase over the next year as the critical habitat designation is completed, Cantrell does not think it will rise to the prominence the issue received during 1980s and 1990s.

He said when he talks about his work on the spotted owl, newcomers are often surprised to hear it is still an issue. "They think it's gone extinct or we saved it, but we dealt with it as a society in the mid-90s," he said.

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